My VCFA Lecture: Freewriting and Characterization

So the graduating class at VCFA have to give a lecture in their final residency. Sometimes people use their critical thesis as a basis for their lecture, but I’m choosing to do something completely different. I’m going to be doing a lecture on characterization, more specifically, on using freewriting to get to know one’s characters.

What do I mean by freewriting? Lots of different things. You might interview your characters, for example, or write about your protagonist from the perspective of a secondary character. You might describe the contents of their wardrobe, their refrigerator, or their trash. If you have a character who writes songs or poems, why not try writing a few examples of something they’ve written? There are so many possibilities here, but the point is always to learn more about your characters.

I have a lot of trouble figuring my characters out in general (especially my protagonists), which is why I picked this topic. And while I don’t think everyone needs to chain themselves to their desks right now and do all these exercises or their story/novel will fail miserably, I do think they can be useful tools when you’re getting started or feeling stuck. I think the better we know our characters the less floundering we are likely to do and god knows I have done a lot of floundering.

Anyway, if anyone reading this has any suggestions for freewriting exercises I would greatly appreciate all the help I can get. What do you do to get to know your characters?

Killing Your Darlings Part 2

If you write at all, sooner or later you’ll come across the concept of “killing your darlings.” It’s inevitable that as an artist you will also eventually create something that you love dearly but that doesn’t work in the grand scheme of your story or is at best self indulgent. And then you will have to kill it. Dead. But like most things it’s a hell of a lot easier to talk about than it is to do.

Before I started writing seriously—that is, before I started writing on a regular basis instead of, say, once a year—I used to think that revision meant moving words around on the page. I blame poetry for this. When you are obsessed with language you cannot help but get lost in the words of a story and forget about everything else. Or at least, that’s been my experience. I could easily spend weeks doing nothing but fixate on the words of a story, trying to get the sound and the rhythm just right. You know that Hemingway quote, the one where he talks about rewriting the end of a book 39 times just to get the words right? That is me. I will do things like that until I can’t stand the sight of it anymore.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. But it does pose a huge problem for me at a certain stage of the writing process because, let’s face it, if that ending doesn’t make sense/doesn’t fit with the rest of the story or what have you, why waste all that time and energy on fixing the words when there is obviously a greater problem there? It doesn’t matter how pretty the words are. If the structure is falling apart sooner or later the story will crumble. And the danger of fixating solely on language is that it can blind you to the larger, overarching problems. After all, it’s much easier to change the words than it is to rework the story itself. (Suddenly, I find myself wondering if some writers are better at focusing on big picture stuff than others).

So that is what has been happening to me in the past few weeks. I was busy working on backstory. I was all set to write a bunch of new backstory scenes. I’d done all this work sketching out characters and setting. And then I realized it just didn’t make sense. The backstory was too complicated. It was like I had two character/plot arcs instead of one (Tim, if you’re reading this you were absolutely right) and I couldn’t think of any logical reason why it should be that way other than the fact that I wanted it to be that way. Why, you ask? Because there were all these cool magical scenes I wanted to have in there that I would probably have to cut because they just wouldn’t work if I picked one of those arcs and stuck with it. In other words, I really really really didn’t want to have to kill any of my darlings.

It’s a difficult thing to do, cutting scenes or characters you love, and I think because I often start a story with a concept and a bunch of cool images in mind, instead of a character, it’s much harder for me to do. Those images might be the reason I started the story. Or maybe they’re just really cool, magical scenes that I hate to let go of. But when you keep things just because you like them even though they don’t fit into the story or make sense you really do yourself a disservice and you’re probably giving yourself more work in the long run.

Anyway, in terms of my own work I’ve merged the two arcs (before, I had an arc when my protagonist was a child and one when she’s a teenager. Now everything takes place when she’s a teen.), I moved a bunch of the backstory up in time so those events are more recent, and scrapped most of what I’d written, though it’s still floating around in my head. I think it works better now. It still needs a lot of tweaking, but it feels more like a story than a bunch of disconnected events. And I’m desperately trying to focus more on the overall structure and keep from obsessing about those damn words! But even now I do ocasionally hear that siren call: maybe I can fit this scene in here, if I change it just a little, maybe I won’t have to kill it, please please please…

Killing Your Darlings Part 1

Okay, okay! So I was supposed to post something once a week. But I had this crazy idea to scrap most of what I had written of my novel and start over again so I’m currently in panic-and-chain-myself-to-the-computer mode. Therefore a real post will have to wait. I will try to actually write something useful when I’m done killing my darlings. I will even try to give you all the gory details so you can gasp in horror with me or something. And I will, of course, try to keep myself from wallowing in despair.

Hasta luego,

Your humble blogger.